Building Blocks of a Novel: Scenes

Hi All! Today I want to talk about the next building blocks of a novel—scenes! (This is part four of a series built around a metaphor comparing a novel to a city. So far, we’ve imagined words as bricks, sentences as walls, and paragraphs as buildings.)

In a world class city, the streets will get us from point A to point B, but they will also give us a taste of the city’s culture, connect neighborhoods, and create a natural flow. In our novels, we want scenes to get us where we’re going, but we also want them to leave us with new information, new questions, or greater understanding of our setting and characters. In other words, like a great city boulevard, we want a great scene to keep things moving in the most thrilling and memorable way.

Here are some tips that will help you to create strong scenes:

In every scene, the MC should be acting, reacting, or both—all with a purpose.

Every scene must move the main character (or the POV character if the book contains multiple POVs,) toward his or her objective. The reader should know what the character is working toward, and how the actions they take are intended to bring about those goals. You may want to create a scene that reveals the terrain of your story’s world or that lets the reader know the truth about the MC’s father. Definitely do that, but make sure the scene contributes to the MC’s objective.

As an example, consider the scene early in The Hunger Games where Katniss goes hunting before the reaping. As readers, we see the woods around the Seam, we meet Gale, and we learn a lot of backstory. But at the heart of the scene is Katniss’s action in support of her objective of providing for her family and keeping them safe.

Every scene should contain obstacles to the MC’s objective.

A scene that has no obstacles will have no conflict and won’t keep the story moving and the reader engaged. Even if the scene contributes to the MC’s objective, it won’t be engaging if it doesn’t contain a challenge. It doesn’t have to be obvious or overtly connected, but it needs to have some impact on whether or not the MC will achieve his or her goal.

Take another look at the example of the hunting scene from the opening of The Hunger Games. In that scene there is conflict between Gale and Katniss over the idea of whether they should try to run away. They don’t have a huge argument, but Katniss gets irritated and snaps at Gale. She remarks that “the conversation feels all wrong.”  Not a huge conflict, but one that connects to the central objective of keeping her family safe. If Gale encourages her to leave with him, he’s putting that objective in jeopardy. The scene reveals this larger conflict on a smaller scale.

Every scene should matter.

Every scene needs to have something valuable at stake. It could be huge, like the welfare of your MC’s family, or smaller, like her mood on the day of the reaping. But every scene needs to have something connected to the MC’s goal at risk.

The size of the stakes will depend on how strongly they impact the character’s objective. A scene with lots of conflict and high stakes—a head-on car crash that leaves a boy pinned inside a burning car, for instance—only delivers if it connects to your MC’s goal. If your MC is struggling to cope with PTSD, and she saves that boy from the burning car, her stakes are impacted along with his. The stakes might be life and death for him, but this isn’t his story, so those stakes won’t resonate as strongly. But saving him required our MC to face her condition, so she had stakes in the scene, too. It’s the stakes that connect to your character’s goals that matter the most in your scene.

Every scene must move the plot forward, but great scenes will contribute other elements to the story, as well.

A truly great scene contributes more than just goal and conflict. If you can weave in setting, character growth, backstory, etc. you will have created a truly great scene. Think of the trash compactor scene in the first Star Wars movie. There’s conflict that impacts the characters’ goals of rescuing the Princess and thwarting the Empire, but there’s also great use of setting, character development, and dialogue. All these things support the main action of the scene—escaping the trash compactor before they are all crushed to death.

Just like a great city has all sorts of streets keeping things moving and connected, your novel will have many kinds of scenes driving the story forward and keeping the reader turning pages. Next month I’ll post about chapters, the neighborhoods of your novel.

How do you feel about scenes? Did I miss anything important? Do you have any additional tips? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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